Friday, May 30, 2014

Sermon of the Week (5/25-5/31)

This week's Sermon of the Week is from Dr. Rodney Reeves on 1 Corinthians 1 entitled "Imitate Me" from 8/31/2012. Dr. Reeves is a Greek expert and Pauline scholar and some of his sermons are on iTunes. This is a great sermon to get introduced to him, you can hear his passion both for the Gospel and the life of Paul. You can also hear how he engages his audience with a Socratic style, contrary to the monologue of most expository preaching.

Reeves elaborates on on how truly foolish the Gospel would have been to Paul's gentile audience. Seeing birds pick at the carcass of some crucified non-citizen criminal was a daily occurrence in Corinth and elsewhere in the Roman Empire. That the savior of the world was a crucified man, and that we should daily imitate Paul in living out Christ's death, burial, and resurrection would have been a very radical teaching. God chooses the foolish things to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong. This sermon will bless you.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review (#50 of 2014) The Great Fire of Rome by Stephen Dando-Collins

The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City
Dando-Collins aims to fill what he sees as a void of historical compilations of the Great fire of Rome in A.D. 64 and its consequences for Emperor Nero. The book is not greatly detailed, it focuses pretty narrowly on a four-year period.

Despite the record of two non-Christian historians (Tacitus, Suetonius) that Nero persecuted Christians, Dando-Collins maintains that it was likely not Christians who were blamed and persecuted for the fire of Rome, but rather members of the cult of Isis. Burning them in effigy would have added insult to the cult. There is evidence that the cult was suppressed in the years following the fire, even though Dando-Collins writes that Nero had a fascination with the cult and all things Egyptian. While there were Christians in Rome, they were not numerous enough to be blamed widely for events. D-C seems to accept Christian tradition in regards to some aspects of the lives of the Apostles Peter and Paul persecution, but rejects others. Christians could have been treated harshly by Romans for many reasons, as recorded in Luke's Book of Acts, but the biggest persecution was likely after the revolt of the Jews in Palestine in 66 A.D., when Nero reportedly banned Jews from Rome and likely executed those in custody. 

The narrative begins in January, 64 A.D. There is some attention given to its geography, how fires were traditionally fought, and how commerce was conducted. There is much information on the politics of the time, including all of the infidelities and corruption of Rome's senators and other officials. The descriptions of Rome make it helpful in order to see what the early Christians would have seen. However, there is not much information given from the perspective of commoners or travelers, though I do not know how much of that type of material survives.

Nero was not exactly "fiddling" while Rome burned, but he was on tour competing in American Idol-like singing competitions-- which he always won. While he was swift to return to the city, dole out aid, and made good, modern plans for the rebuilding of the city, he was always rumored to have been the fire's cause. 

Nero liked to compete in chariot races, dress like a gladiator, and competed in the games of 67 A.D., which disgusted the upper-class who looked down on entertainment professions as vulgar and definitely a disgrace for an emperor. Nero was also a bisexual adultering, thieving, lying murderer. His many exploits eventually led those around him to conspire against him in 65 A.D., but the plot fell apart due to a lack of nerve. The conspirators were then all arrested and put to death. (If you've seen the movie Gladiator you can get a visual sense of how plots against crazy emperors were stamped out by those who had much to gain by remaining loyal). In 68 A.D., several regions decided to revolt against Nero's policies and conspiracy overtook Nero's Praetorians and he was finished.

The author shifts perspective to give the views of Flavius Josephus, who was a Pharisee who traveled to Rome in 64 to negotiate the release of several priests and Pharisees who, like Paul, had appealed to Ceasar and were sent by Felix to make their case. (D-C reports that Agrippa had granted citizenship to various Pharisees such that they could make this appeal.) He likely knew Paul, or knew of him. The author does not take Paul at Luke's word that Paul was "born a citizen" of Rome, although it is possible that all citizens of Tarsus were granted citizenship at some point.

Nero was raising an army for a great eastern expedition when he rescheduled various games, which likely would have included public executions of state prisoners by wild animals. This is helpful as it gives an indictation of what Paul might have been expecting when he wrote 2 Timothy from prison. After the Jewish revolt of 66 A.D., as recorded by Josephus, Nero likely ordered the execution of all Jews in Roman custody; this likely included Peter and Paul-- tradition says Peter was executed first (he'd have been crucified as a punishment befitting a non-citizen) and Paul several months later (likely beheaded).

Dando-Collins defends Nero as a "visionary," and no more cruel than any other Ceasar or even modern-day rulers who support capital punishment. That is a little rich, but I think the author is basically just trying to push back against commonly repeated myths about Nero.

Critics of the book point out that Dando-Collins makes some major mistakes in his research and his citations, as well as takes liberty with Latin translations of quotes-- including Nero's last words. He also tends to take disputed hypotheses and run with them as facts to fit his narrative, which I find common among modern writers of history.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I learned a lot of useful information from it. It could have included more detail and an explanation of how history of Rome prior to 64-68 A.D. set precedents for how the fire was dealt with, and how all of Nero's actions set precedents for the later Roman Empire.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A response to Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations"

It seems all of America was reading "The Case for Reparations" over the weekend. It is a great article; Coates has done a splendid job of compiling years worth of his own research and observations to make the case that African-Americans have been robbed since the country's founding and that since restitution was not made after the Civil War, the results have simply been a compounding of loss of potential income and wealth.

Coates confronts myths about racism and civil rights espoused by both left and right "From the (current) White House on down." He points out that "Roosevelt’s New Deal, much like the democracy that produced it, rested on the foundation of Jim Crow." The GI Bill and federal housing policy, which are often thought of as helping minorities, were designed to discriminate against blacks such that they saw little benefit from them. He details the long history of legal discrimination and fraudulent activities that have targeted blacks from the Civil War to the recent subprime mortgage bust. He also argues that reparations are not historically unprecedented-- they were discussed frequently in the 1800s and there is international precedent as well (see the section on Germany and Israel towards the end of the piece).

Coates makes very good points. But might there be another people to whom the U.S. government arguably owes much greater in terms of reparations? One that very simple reforms would grant them property rights and a true path to self-determination? How about Native Americans.

Take, for example, the demographics of North Lawndale, a Chicago neighborhood, as offered by Coates. Let's compare that to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. 

"(North Lawndale) is 92 percent black. Its homicide rate is 45 per 100,000—triple the rate of the city as a whole. The infant-mortality rate is 14 per 1,000—more than twice the national average. Forty-three percent of the people in North Lawndale live below the poverty line—double Chicago’s overall rate. Forty-five percent of all households are on food stamps—nearly three times the rate of the city at large. Sears, Roebuck left the neighborhood in 1987, taking 1,800 jobs with it. Kids in North Lawndale need not be confused about their prospects: Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center sits directly adjacent to the neighborhood."

Pine Ridge Reservation-- seen as a P.O.W. camp to those who live there (estimates have to be made because too few will respond to the Census):
94% Native American.
Teen suicide rate 150% above U.S. average.
Life expectancy: 48 for men, 52 for women. 
85-95% unemployment rate.
95% of population below the federal poverty line.
Over 50% of adults have diabetes.
60% of the homes on the Pine Ridge Reservation are infested with Black Mold, Stachybotrys, etc.

That's one reservation out of many in the U.S. African-Americans have better odds of owning property, starting a business, and having crimes prosecuted than Native Americans on Pine Ridge.

I could go on. The plight of the Native American was chronicled very well in PBS' American Experience documentary We Shall Remain. Diane Sawyer also drew attention to Pine Ridge recently.

I don't begrudge Coates' argument about reparations, I just want to say there are others who are at least equally deserving.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Sermon of the Week (5/18-5/24)

In between books, I listen to sermons from various churches (I'll post a list soon). My intent is to highlight one of these every week.

However, this week the most important spiritual lesson I gleaned came from a very non-Christian source-- a Tim Ferriss podcast interview with Josh Waitzkin. Ferriss is the author of The 4-Hour Workweek and other books highlighting productivity hacks. Waitzkin was the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer, and is a chess Grand Master and now a Tai Chi martial arts champion as well.

I found this blog post summarizing the main points very well.

Waitzkin is a consultant to well-known, accomplished professionals-- helping them find ways to achieve mastery, overcome cognitive biases, and learning from their behaviors and habits. One personal key to his day, and what he sees as the most common trait among successful traders, CEOs, and other professionals, is meditation. Waitzkin spends hours a day practicing meditation and proper breathing. This helps him stay creative and productive, and assists him in times of stress or when he's tempted to get angry.

The very first book I finished this year was Richard Foster's Prayer (my review). He explains the importance of prayer as a spiritual discipline and how to see everything we do in a day as an ongoing conversation with God. But he also espouses the importance of taking time out to meditate prayerfully on God's Word. I used his book to change a few of my own habits, but not at the deep level I should have.  While I maintain a "quiet time," I find it hard to purposefully set aside extended times of silence for prayer, meditation, and journaling. I'm always too eager to move onto the next thing or to check my quiet time and Bible reading off my list.

This is partly why I think all Christians should do yoga at least once a week (I'll write an article on this one day). It requires concentration, endurance, breathing, and improves muscle health and balance. I find it hard to do yoga once a week, even though I always benefit from it.

Hence, the Ferriss and Waitzkin interview was very convicting-- here are people who don't know God reaping a huge benefit of practicing something Christians should be All-Stars at-- and something Jesus himself demonstrated for us (Mark 1:35). Ferriss and Waitzkin are meditating to "start from a creative place" rather than getting in touch with their Creator.

Many articles I've read on productivity always say to never start the day with email-- a reactive activity -- and instead focus on creativity. I'm too guilty of checking my email in the midst of my morning routine. This causes me to think about how I'm going to respond, or other things I need to do during the day, instead of remembering to focus on the most important things. I read an article by a life coach yesterday arguing that "multitasking jams the voice of God."

When Ferriss asks Waitzkin "if your house was on fire and you could save one thing, what would it be?" he responds that there is nothing material that he would save-- so long as his family was safe, there really isn't anything he owns that he wouldn't let go of. That's also big, right? 

There are other great insights from the interview, such as finishing the work day with quality work and what to do after you leave your place of work. I highly recommend listening.

(If you're looking for a church sermon this week, check out this Mark Dever sermon on Psalm 56, preached on May 4. I rather like Dever's sermons on the Psalms.)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Jillian Michaels struggles to run a 9-minute mile

In a recent podcast, Jillian Michaels talks about how she has accepted that she will always "suck" at running. She just recently got back to being able to run a 9-minute mile. I'm sure many listeners, myself included, were surprised by that.* Her statement is making a broader point that we cannot or will not be great at everything, and some things we will just enjoy more than others. She makes the very good point that we have to give ourselves permission to suck at things, so that we can work at them and gradually get better.

However, I find it odd that Jillian often talks and writes in such a self-deprecating way. She says "I'm not an athlete" or clarifies by saying "I'm not a natural athlete." She highlights her weaknesses-- like running and not being "flexible." This from a person who has achieved wealth and worldwide fame by being a professional athlete and coach. She's easily in the top 1% of people in the world when it comes to fitness. Her entire M.O. is pushing people beyond their limits so they can achieve more than they thought possible. (Her co-host rightly chides her for the remarks.)

This reminds me of the recent article in The Atlantic by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman entitled "The Confidence Gap." Women, apparently worldwide, may be genetically predisposed to a lack of confidence when compared to men.

"(A recent study found) men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and that when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less money than men do...women rated themselves more negatively than the men did on scientific ability...(even though) their average (exam score) was about the same...women were much more likely to turn down the opportunity (to compete)...Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect."

(Men also often fall into an insecurity trap, myself included.) 

One encouraging point, however, is when Jillian describes getting help from a trainer in doing a move she's tried for years to do but was yet unsuccessful. The trainer gives her a tip that is literally a 2-second fix and Jillian finds success-- and confidence. The trainer tells her she's one of the few women in the world who can do that move.

So, my questions for the day:
1. What are areas that you need to give yourself permission to "suck" at in order to gradually get better? 
2. Can you identify areas of your life that you irrationally consider your weaknesses, when actually you're strong and just deceiving yourself? What are ways to guard against a "confidence gap"?
3. What area(s) of actual weakness might you be able to find a quick-fix help for if you just ask someone?

*(I am not an avid runner but on Tuesday I ran under 9 mins, if you want a comparison). 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Book Review (#49 of 2014) Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization
The previous book I read covering the history of the Greeks and Romans (Thoneman and Price's The Birth of Europe--my review) over this period left out much about Carthage and the Punic Wars. Much of the history about Carthage itself was lost after the Roman army wiped it off the map. Surviving works by Greeks exist, including some copies or long quotations of Carthaginian sources. Carthage had a narrow base of names-- it seems like every male was named Hannibal (meaning "grace of Baal"), complicating matters for historians.  Carthage was important culturally to the Roman Empire-- Carthaginians were loathed as enemies by Greeks and Romans, such that much of what was written about them was racist and propagandist in nature. Carthage was the unvirtuous archrival that balanced the "pietas" of Roman culture. But Carthage has always stood as a warning against war and hubris-- engage in too much foreign intervention and you might end up being wiped off the map like Carthage.
Whereas Thoneman and Price, and other authors, write that Greek and Roman generals looked to Homer's Iliad for their heroes and standards, Miles writes that Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians syncretically all claimed Heracles. This led to a synthesis of culture between Greece and Carthage, particularly on Sicily where both sides fought prolongued battles and established colonies which were constantly being re-occupied. As another commenter writes:
"This is the major thrust of the book and is itself sufficient justification for reading it. Regrettably, this important contribution is diminished by long and persistent digressions into the syncretism between the Greco/Roman Heracles/Hercules and the Punic deity Melquart (Melkart--the basis of given names such as Hamilcar). Miles argues at length that the great general Hannibal and his aides consciously used the parallel with Heracles as a religious accompaniment to warfare in the campaign to undermine Roman pride. These are appealing arguments to an archeologist, as they can be supported to some extent by surviving coinage. This is an inherently provocative thesis and could be the subject of a separate book (though one that would be less appealing to a publisher)."

Miles starts with the development and migration of the Phoenecians (from which we get the Latin term Punic) out of Tyre. No biblical references are given even though Tyre played various roles in Israel's development. I found Miles' treatment very helpful-- what were Tyre and Sidon, why did they matter? How did the center of Phoenecian life move across the see from Tyre to Carthage? (Fleeing Assyrians and Babylonians).
Miles gives a helpful account of the evolution of religion and culture in Carthage. Baal and Astarte (Ashterah) were worshipped. Child sacrifice is documented but its importance is debated.

Carthage occupied territories in Spain and relied on silver from Spanish minds to fuel its trade and fund its armies. Carthaginian armies were diverse and made up of mercenaries. This created some logistical problems-- companies speaking different languages -- but also some benefits like diverse fighting styles and flexibility.
The First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) was largely fought on Sicily. Carthage had long occupied territories and fought prolonged conflicts against Syracusans while maintaining peace with the fledgling Roman republic. However, when another Roman ally was attacked by Carthage, Rome eventually chose to enter war with its new rival. After a failed Roman invasion of North Africa, Rome was eventually able to best Carthage on Sicily and at sea to win the war. Rome had expanded its territory and ambitions, and Carthage would be able to rebuild.

The Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) was one where strategy was important. Hannibal marched from Spain across two mountain ranges into the heart of Italy. Imagine African elephants marching through the forests of Europe. Hannibal's army occupied parts of Italy for 15 years. At the Battle of Cannae, Rome lost maybe 70,000 troops. Miles writes that Hannibal did not want to destroy Rome, but simply hoped to reduce its power and give independence to Italian city-states. His assumption that Rome would negotiate a peace proved false, and Rome fought on.

One interesting note about these ancient wars are the ways that both sides appeal to their gods and oracles for divine wisdom and favor. Both Hannibal and the Roman Senate appealed to gods in such a way as to try and show the native populations that they would be the favored ones.So, the appeals were often very calculated and for morale as much as actual divine favor.

Hannibal met his match in the Roman general Scipio, and as a Roman counterattack took the battle to Africa, Hannibal and Carthage were forced to sue for peace. Although stripped of its army, navy, and forced to pay a heavy tribute, Carthage again grew economically and was able to rebuild. By 251 it had repaired its war reparations and began rebuilding its forces.

This led to both jealousy and fear among the Roman elite. The title of the book comes from words attributed to Cato the Elder, who often  finished his Senate oratories urging the elimination of Carthage once and for all: "Carthago delenda est." There was a debate in the Senate because there was a fear that if Rome's chief rival was eliminated then it would be harder to keep the Roman masses in check. Eventually, the Roman war-hawks got what they wanted-- Carthage began to behave beligerently and the Senate raised an expedition force to destroy Carthage. The Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.) was a brief and relatively one-sided affair. The once-mighty city of 700,000 people was razed to the ground, never to be rebuilt.

Miles looks at how Roman historians looked back on Carthage. Its fall was later seen as something of a prelude to the fall of the Roman empire-- its leaders became corrupt and "irrational," and it crumbled from within before being conquered from without.
I enjoyed this book, learned a lot, and will leave it to the experts to figure out the controversies. 4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How do you follow a leader when you know he/she is making a mistake?

In books on leadership and management, I think there's a conspicuous absence of chapters entitled "I screwed up. I'm sorry," and dealing with the consequences for followers of a leader's mistake.  Many leaders and managers don't seem to join in with Dale Carnegie's admonition "when we are wrong--and that will be surprisingly often...let's admit our mistakes quickly and with enthusiasm."  

Mark Driscoll recently posted an open letter of apology and repentance. (Reddit posted a copy here.) In 2007, he discussed apologies in a sermon in which he gives himself some good advice: 
"First, follow the truth wherever it leads. If it means it leads to “you’re wrong”, then follow it. If it leads to “you’re fired”, then follow it. If it leads to “that’s not what’s best for you, but it’s best for all”, then follow it. If it leads to “you need to apologize”, then follow it. Don’t defend yourself. Don’t always do what is in your best interest. Follow the truth wherever it leads.
Secondly, invite and pursue correction and council. Tell the people in your life, “I’m blind to my own blindness. I’m foolish to my own folly. I need you to confront me. I need you to rebuke me. I need you to speak the truth to me. When I’m acting like a jerk, I need you to say it. I need you to give me council because sometimes I don’t know what to do. I need correction because sometimes I say and do the wrong thing.” And receive it, don’t argue, don’t blame shift, don’t change the topic. Receive it."

Fast forward to 2014 when he's making another apology in the same vein. In 2007, he was fighting fire with fire and someone he respected reached out to him, changed his mind. Sounds like it was similar in recent months, he got criticized for something, stuck to his guns and later decided it was wrong. 

My dilemma arises as a follower. What do you do when a leader is doing or saying something that you think is likely wrong, and reckon there is a high probability that at some point in the future-- years or decades ahead, maybe-- he will change his mind and do it differently? Driscoll writes "I'm foolish to my own folly. I need you to confront me. I need you to rebuke me." But that statement is biased by hindsight. At the time, if you were to rebuke him he'd likely get mad and fire back. For the time being, he's convinced of his correctness.  Therefore, questioning him is generally going to be met with some hostility or accusations of disloyalty. What do you do? How long do you stay on as a follower? 

The submission side of the equation is tough-- you've got to submit to the leadership you think is errant and trust that the leader will eventually see his ways as errant. There are not many books written about that.

Driscoll's recent apology states:
"As I’ve expressed in several sermons, I needed to mature as a leader, and we needed to mature as a church. In the last year or two, I have been deeply convicted by God that my angry-young-prophet days are over, to be replaced by a helpful, Bible-teaching spiritual father."

So, the 2007 experience wasn't enough. I would guess that some people have been shepherded by Driscoll for over a decade, acutely aware of the mistakes he seemed oblivious to or defensive about but they stuck with him. According to the letter, some people still haven't reconciled with Driscoll. That's a shame, forgiveness should be quick-- but how do we reconcile forgiveness and following someone who you know is doing or saying something wrong? 

I ask these questions because in my own life I've seen leaders take stands on particular issues and deflect any questions or criticisms. "This is what I believe and I'm sticking to it." Years later, they change their position on the issue. But I don't often hear an "I'm sorry, I was wrong..." to those who irked his ire by questioning the earlier stance. It is instead a "This is what I believe and I'm sticking to it" all over again. I personally have a hard time being a follower in those situations. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Book Review (#48 of 2014) The Cambridge History of Turkey vol. I Byzantium to Turkey 1071-1453

The Cambridge History of Turkey (Volume 1)
This is among the most academic historical works I have ever read; it was extremely informative. The depth of information drawn from sources in multiple languages is quite impressive. That said, it was a definite endeavor to read this book in its entirety. Each chapter is an essay by a different contributor focusing on a different aspect of Turkish history from 1071 to 1453 A.D. I have three more volumes to get through!

This book covers the period when nomadic tribes from the Central Asian steppes first began to propagate into Anatolia. The Seljuks, Mamluks, Ottomans, and Turkoman histories are chronicled. Their political and economic systems are detailed, along with the development of religious thought and literature. Many people forget that the Mongols also conquered territory and subjugated the Seljuks, and had a major influence in Anatolian development. The book actually begins by looking at the decline of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Turks from the point of view of Rome and Constantinople. 

There is quite a bit of tedium in the detail, particularly in the chronology of rulers from Constaninople and the succession of power during the Mongol-dominated years. The most interesting and easy-to-read essay is the last one, "Social, cultural and intellectual life, 1071-1463" by Ahmet Ya┼čar Ocak of Hacettepe University in Ankara. It covers much of the cultural and religious life of the period, exploring in depth the interaction of both native cultures, Christian cultures-- both Orthodox and heterodox, those held by Romans and those held by others who had adopted the faith. I also enjoyed Dr. Kate Fleet's chapter on the Turkish economy.

Many people, and a recent Turkish movie, emphasize 1453-- the fall of Constantinople -- as a huge surprise that shocked the world. History is clear, however, that the fall of Constantinople was just the end of a culmination of hundreds of years of history. The Byzantine Empire had already fallen, Turks had already conquered areas in the Balkans and claimed formerly Greek territories. They had both fought alongside the Byzantines, hired them for military service, and fought against them. Christians of all stripes all over Anatolia no longer looked to Constantinople as a protector or relevant long before 1453-- the Turks had taken over that role long ago.

"The defeat of the Byzantine army by the Seljuk Turks at the battle of Malazgirt (Manzikert) in 1071 ushered in a period of (Roman/Byzantine) military decline, which, despite its fluctuations, culminated with the capture of Constantinople in 1453. "

The Western empire was already divided both politically and religiously. Constantinople competed for territory, the open sea, and economic influence among the Slavs, the Turks, the Venetians, other Italians, and others in Western Europe. In 1204, Constantinople was brutally plundered by Christian crusaders and Latin rule was imposed. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches were briefly united in 1274, but were soon to be at odds with one another again. So, the narrative of East vs. West in terms of Europe versus Asia is a false one.
In 1243, the Seljuk Turks were conquered from the East by Mongolians who ruled from a considerable distance. Around that time, the tribe of Osmans appeared in Anatolia and began to act independently of the Seljuks around 1299. The Ottomans slowly rose to prominence in the 1300s against Mongols, Persians, Byzantines, and other Turkish peoples. By 1354, Ottomans had reached Thrace and were headed toward the Balkans. 1389 saw the Battle of Kosovo against the Christian Serbs, the outcome of which still reverberates in world politics today. By 1453, the Ottomans were already a world power complete with seafaring navy. Taking Constantinople just gave them the ability to hinder the Eastern spice trade and charge exhorbitant taxes on Europeans passing through. (This led to Columbus' discovery of the Americas in 1492 since Europe was eager to find a better route to India.)

Evolving Ottoman economic policy is described as pragmatic and effective:

"It can be argued that there was a Turkish economic approach which was essentially pragmatic and laissez-faire, motivated by a desire to avoid economic disruption, a willingness to adopt rather than change economic systems which were already in place, and an avoidance of complex structures, as well as a proactive engagement involving active promotion of economic development, both rural and urban, protection of merchants, both local and foreign, cultivation of commercial relations, in particular with the west, and manipulation of the market."

Throughout the period covered by the book, cities and settlements changed hands multiple times, loyalties shifted, and borders were fluid. I enjoyed some of the brief histories of people groups I have encountered, such as the Gagauz-- an ethnically Christian but Turkic-speaking people. There is interesting research on at how Muslims and Christians both adopted syncretic practices of native pagans, namely shrines created to venerated saints or prominent Islamic clergy.

"(T)he Christianity of the Anatolian population was created from an amalgam of the influences of old pagan cults and local religions with Christianity . A similar process applied, too, to popular Islam. Thus, the formation in the towns and villages of an Islam and a Christianity which tended to superstition, outside the medreses and political government circles, brought the two peoples close to each other."

I enjoyed the explanations of the evolution of various schools of Sunni and Sufi thought in Anatolia, and how it was Sufi influence that caused Turkish to replace Persian or Arabic in official matters and recorded literature.

"There is no doubt that among the most important social and cultural trans-formations in the history of Islam was the spreading of organised Sufi tarikats and their influence on the popular understanding of Islam. The most obvious sign of this was the extensive spread of saintly cults among the people almost everywhere throughout the Islamic world, and their dominance over literate, ‘Quranic' Islam."

I look forward to checking out some of the translated sources cited in the text as well as the next three volumes. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Leadership and Confrontation

A friend in a position of leadership recently wrote a post where he described how he affected a major change in his organization over a multi-year period. He provides a brief summary of the steps he took and the attitude he adopted in trying to promote the change. One point stands out:
“You must attempt to win over your critics. Notice, I didn’t say, ‘win your critics.’ As Jesus wasn’t able to win over everyone don’t think for one moment you’ll be able to. But you can seek to win over your critics by engaging with them and not avoiding them; by lovingly, tactfully and appropriately answering their questions; by being approachable and most importantly, by exuding an attitude of humility—no one likes an arrogant (leader).”
Every business, church, and marriage I’ve seen struggle over the past few years seems to have a symptom of the leader not following the “engaging” advice and instead choosing a path of “avoiding.” He has some problem in the company he wants to address, or a new idea he wants to try out, but runs into the problem of having to get multiple independent wills to act in unison with his. He encounters skepticism and resistance— maybe publicly. The other parties don’t notice the problem, have never heard of the idea, and don’t share the leader’s sense of urgency.
There is insecurity involved that often manifests itself in what we call “pride.” The leader feels frustrated, disrespected, unloved, and perhaps he feels overwhelmed if task is daunting and he feels time is against him. Then what happens?

I observe a “fight or flight” behavior. Too often, there is a resignation on the part of the leader— his insecurity tells him that if he pushes the issue he may lose the battle, and no one likes to lose. He fears loss of respect or friendship. “She will never change her mind,” he resigns himself to believing. This attitude breeds contempt. Contempt for the partner, spouse, employees, or followers. There comes a fanciful wishing that some members of the organization did not exist or would just leave. The leader then retreats into his shell. He looks backward in time and says “We’d have been better off in we’d changed, and I regret it, but I told them so and it is what it is.” Neither the organization or the leader perform at 100% after that. Too often, the leader walks away or the couple divorces.
Other times, the leader adopts a “fight” stance. “This is how it is going to be.” A confrontational tone is held, and the insecurity the leader feels draws him to make the battle personal. The change he wants comes at the expense of the people on his team. What was once a cohesive organization becomes a “holy huddle” that may also adopt the leaders’ “you’re with us or against us” mentality. Or the leader just resigns angrily, poor-mouthing the organization. Neither the organization or the leader perform at 100% after that. The bad blood created casts a stain on the reputation of everyone involved.

Leadership, like it or not, is always conditional. You may outrank other soldiers but that is no guarantee that they follow you, or that they should follow you 100% of time time with no questions asked. Anyone who expects that kind of loyalty always ends up bitterly disappointed.
I recently heard a story about a director who walked into a board meeting and was unexpectedly told that he was no longer the director—he was out. This story was told to generate sympathy for the leader whose followers apparently connived against him. But I see it differently. If the majority of your closest employees and advisers think you are unfit for the job, and that information completely surprises you, what does that say about your relationship with them? How well did you really get to know them?

The best leaders do no take their position for granted; they realize they serve their employees as much as their employees serve them. They meet with them individually on a regular basis. They get to know their families, their concerns, their dreams, their fears. They learn how the individuals prefer to be communicated with— a one-size-fits-all method of communication does not work in any organization. If the leader is able to connect to each follower on a personal level, it develops trust. The follower feels free to offer ideas up for the boss’s criticism, and to criticize the leader’s ideas.

This always takes a long time, but it starts with a simple step— lunch. If you want to make a major paradigm shift in your company, start by meeting with stakeholders individually. Don’t even bring the idea of change up until there is a great level of trust and even friendship. In marriage, you learn your spouse (or children) is not open to receiving criticism unless she feels loved unconditionally. Your followers should feel that you care for them and their best interests regardless of whether they agree with you on an issue or like what you are doing. Let the winning-over process take months or years, don’t fall for the myth that “time is not on your side.” As my friend pointed out, you will not win every battle— but you should not see every change as a battle. Don’t fall into the “fight or flight” mentality--dig deeper instead.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Review (#47 of 2014) The Omnivore's Dilemma for Kids by Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat, Young Readers Edition
I accidentally borrowed (for Kindle) the "Young Readers" version of this book, but it strikes me as odd that it's a "Young Readers" version since I don't know anyone under 21 who would want to read it, or see the pictures in it of slaughtered animals and read about how that works. The Young Readers version also contains some handy insets that help define terms and provide supplementary information. My wife checked out the original version and had to look up words in the dictionary just to get through the Preface, so I don't regret reading this one.

Having read a sequel to this book, In Defense of Food, I was eager to read this one. I am glad that I read the sequel first, actually. Pollan is on a mission to find out where our food comes from and if it matters. He sets out to make four different meals:  A modern meal (from the industrial food chain), an organic meal (which he finds out also comes from the industrial food chain), a local sustainable meal, and a hunter-gatherer meal.

The first few pages grab your attention. Pollan buys his own head of cattle and follows it to the feed lot. He spends time on a modern American corn farm and explains all the ways in which our heavily-subsidized corn affects everything else in the food chain. It requires using modified corn for which the seed has to be bought new from the manufacturer every year. It requires using a ton of nitrogen fertilizer that runs into watersheds and destroys them. It creates a whole class of farmers that would not survive without government subsidies. It takes more energy to produce the corn-based food we buy than what is in the food itself. This is truly modern innovation.

"Maltodextrin? Monosodium glutamate? Ascorbic acid? What are those things? What about lecithin and mono-, di-, and triglycerides? They are all made from corn...Even the citric acid that keeps the nugget “fresh” is made from corn... (H)alf the income of America’s corn farmers comes from government checks. It is these government checks, or subsidies, that keep corn and soybean prices low...Your soft drink or hamburger may be cheaper, but that’s because taxpayers have already paid for part of it...A box of cereal contains four cents worth of corn (or some other grain). Yet that box will sell for close to four dollars.
(For every dollar spent on food, only about 8 cents of it goes to the farmers.)

"How much of the carbon in the various McDonald’s menu items came from corn? In order from most corny to least, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: Soda (100 percent corn) Milk shake (78 percent) Salad dressing (65 percent) Chicken nuggets (56 percent) Cheeseburger (52 percent) French fries (23 percent)." 

The corn-fed cattle that are slaughtered may meet their demise more humanely thanks to Temple Grandin's work, but they will not contain the Omega 3's and Omega 6's than a grass-fed cow will. 
"The typoe of animal you eat may matter less than what the animal you're eating has itself eaten."

Pollan finds that due to increased demand for "organic," the organic markets have also achieved economies of scale by becoming heavily industrialized and are owned by a few large firms. The only thing that makes the food "organic" is that no pesticides were used in the process. An "organic" cow is one fed with corn that was not grown with pesticides. So, better for the environment but perhaps only marginally more healthy.

Pollan then works on a "locally sustainable" farm for a week. The farmer has worked to rehabilitate the land over the years. Cattle graze on grass, and are followed in the same spot by the chickens who pick through the cow patties and leave their own droppings to fertilize the grass to grow again. The animals are slaughtered in open-air facilities for all to see. Chickens don't die at the high rate (10%) they do on industrial farms. They are tastier and healthier, but all of the meat and produce are available seasonally. The food is sold only locally, compared to the average 1,500 miles the rest of our food travels to get to our plates.

"We have forgotten that meats used to be as seasonal as fruits and vegetables...If local food chains are going to succeed, customers will have to get used to eating that way again."

For the last meal, Pollan had to get a hunting license, and rely on the help of experts to help him find wild game and mushrooms-- plus his own garden and fruit trees found locally. It was the much harder meal to make, but the one that put him closest in touch with his food. The sheer effort -- months-- it took to put together that meal gives the reader pause.

I enjoyed this book and learned a lot about the food chain. For the last year, I have vowed to live "low on the food chain" on a mainly plant-based diet. I will also only eat meat if I know where it came from. After reading this book, my convictions are reinforced. I think Christians need to work out a theology of food and agriculture. If my friend Lucas is reading this, he is probably cringing at how late I was to figure that out. Some of the details are a little much, but it's still an easy read. 4 stars out of 5.

"I don’t want to have to forage every meal. Most people don’t want to learn to garden or hunt. But we can change the way we make and get our food so that it becomes food again—something that feeds our bodies and our souls. Imagine it: Every meal would connect us to the joy of living and the wonder of nature. Every meal would be like saying grace."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book Review (#46 of 2014) Zealot by Reza Aslan

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
The main problem with Aslan's writing is that in setting up his narrative he selectively quotes verses of Scripture while ignoring others in the same passage. Or he describes/summarizes events in various passages while leaving out key details that would seemingly contradict his narrative or he embellishes by describing details that are not found in any texts. My advice is to read the book with Bible open to see what I mean. It's also problematic to cite sources from 300-400 C.E., without providing the context they were written in, as authoritative over texts written centuries earlier.

I'll start with the widely-acknowledged errors in the book. Aslan makes some big assertions about early church history that are easy for non-experts to look up and find false. I found most of the major errors are at the end of the book where he tries to wrap up his narrative. You can decide for yourself if Aslan is intentionally fabricating his story or not (he has called himself as an "expert" in interviews promoting this book). A couple of the biggest problems: Aslan writes that Peter was "the first bishop of Rome." There is no historical evidence for this and plenty to the contrary. The idea that Peter was made the head of the church by Jesus himself, and the church's center was at Rome came later. While the Catholic church maintains this position, it does so against facts and historical sources that Aslan claims to use as authoritative elsewhere in the book-- hence, there's a contradiction in his presentation. How church polity developed in the first 300 years is dealt with in many books, one free one I'd recommend as an intro on the subject is The Ancient Church by W.D. Killen. Bishops in Rome in the second century who tried to exercise authority over other regions were opposed and reminded that they were just bishops of Rome. Aslan also asserts that the Council of Nicea was the first ecumenical council, when there is plenty of evidence that there were other councils before it-- some local and regional in nature. The idea of a "Bishop of Bishops," a title which Aslan claims for James also developed much later, and there is no early historical evidence that James was held in such esteem, though he was an essential figure. Nor is there any evidence that towards the end of his life James sent missionaries with the intent to undermine the work of Paul.

Likewise, Aslan closes his book by arguing that Peter was in Rome before Paul and was working to undermine his ministry. This also does not stand up to any historical scrutiny. Paul wrote several of his letters from Rome with no mention of Peter's presence and the canonized epistles of Peter are addressed to churches Paul had planted and are written as a means of encouraging them--including the exhortation to follow Paul's teachings (not reject them, as Aslan insinuates). Whether written by Peter or a disciple, it's clear from the evidence that there were not the schisms that Aslan claims to fit his narrative. Nor is there evidence that Peter and Paul were martyred together at the same time as Aslan claims. There are good arguments for the Book of Acts being written before Paul's death since his death is not recorded in the book. Several scholars argue that Paul was released from prison, and traveled again before being arrested again and finally executed. The evidence points to Peter arriving in Rome either at the end of Paul's life or shortly after his death. There is no evidence that Paul's writings were "anathema" until after 70 A.D. after which they came en vogue.

Another example of Aslan's narrative dominating over historical evidence is how he treats Paul's relationship with James and the church in Jerusalem. He contends it was openly hostile, that Paul held James and others "with contempt," at one point citing Galations 2:1-10 to back his point. However, he leaves out verse 2: "I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain" (emphasis mine). This "fear" shows humility and concern from Paul, and certainly respect for those authorities. Aslan also skips the entirety of verses 9-10: "recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.

Aslan also ignores that a major reason for Paul's journeys was to collect money from the churches of Asia Minor for the famished church in Jerusalem-- Aslan never mentions it! Neither the text itself, nor subsequent church history, fit Aslan's narrative of open hostility- but rather display "fellowship," peace, and understanding.

Another example from the first half of the book, Aslan frequently embellishes certain accounts of Jesus' life-- such as Jesus' cleansing of the temple-- by adding in characters and drama that do not exist in the Gospels he's quoting or other texts. If someone is unfamiliar with the accounts, he may accept Aslan's account as based on Scripture rather than imagined or embellished.

Aslan is not arguing, as some have charged, that Jesus was part of the Zealot movement that started in the 60s-70s A.D. What he is arguing, however, is that Jesus was both heavily influenced by that simmering movement and that his ministry was a propagation of it. Several of the "myths" that Aslan wants to dispel about Jesus are ones believed by certain Christians (like Catholics or Eastern Orthodox) but not by those who take the Gospels as historical sources-- such as that Jesus had brothers and sisters. That is a "myth" only if you've never read it in the Bible.

The author writes that Jesus never claimed to be "Son of God," and that this Divine Jesus was created later by the Gospel writers who were disillusioned after the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 A.D.  But Jesus clearly equated his work with the "Father's" and made statements that could only be made by God. "I and the Father are one." "Before Abraham was, I am." "Your sins are forgiven." These are recorded in the Q material, were believed and preached by Paul long before 70 A.D.,  before the destruction of the Jewish temple. That's another problem for Aslan's argument. Jesus may have been a liar or worse, but everyone acknowledged his claims. The Pharisees and scribes plot against him because of his equating himself with divinity, something that Aslan conveniently ignores.

Aslan states up front that he's rejecting Paul's writings about Jesus, even though Paul's writings predate the Gospels, because "Paul wasn't interested in the historical Jesus." Aslan then uses later writings create a narrative about Jesus that contradicts what Paul wrote and clearly believed. That's a real contradiction in his methodology. He does not deal very well with the conversion of Paul, someone much more familiar both with Jewish law and custom as well as Greco-Roman philosophy and customs than anyone else Aslan cites. Paul also had years of contact with Jesus' followers and Temple geneological records to verify their claims about the Messiah. If what Aslan writes is true, then why did Paul abandon his faith, prestige, and livelihood to proclaim a divine Messiah to both Jews and Gentiles? Furthermore, why did Jesus' followers join Paul in that and not contradict anything Paul was writing and proclaiming? Since the author of Acts was a traveling companion of Paul, the Gospel that he writes would have been built on information acquired both from Paul and other witnesses that Paul encountered. It's a real problem for Aslan's argument, and he never addresses it other than noting Paul's conversion as "remarkable." However, Aslan returns to Paul later in the book in order to complete his narrative (see above).

William Lane Craig offers a 25-minute take-down of an article promoting the book that you can watch here. Craig's major point is that, contra Aslan, there are plenty of extra-biblical historical sources about the life of Jesus. Craig also presents an example from Josephus' history of Pontius Pilate displaying stubborness against Jewish hostility and the will of a Jewish mob four years prior to the crucifixion as evidence against Aslan's contention that the Pilate narrative is entirely made-up--Aslan contends that Pilate would not have hesitated to execute any Jew because Pilate was later censored by the Roman government for being too quick to kill Jews. This historical fact may actually be important in explaining something Aslan points out appears to be a contradiction-- why did the Jewish leaders hand Jesus over to Rome to be executed while taking the authority of capital punishment on themselves in Acts? I would contend that Pilate likely gave the Jewish authorities the power to execute capital punishment in order to stamp out what the Jews portrayed as insurrection. Aslan never considers this as a possibility.

Different from other modern skeptics, Aslan accepts the miracle stories since they are recorded in all four Gospels. There is more historical evidence of Jesus' miracles than anything else. It's silly to try and explain them away with natural phenomenon or to argue that they were made up afterwards. Jesus was never accused by the religious authorities of breaking the Jewish law with conjuring or magic, meaning those who saw the miracles accepted that they really happened.

But Aslan simply lumps Jesus' miracles in with other miracle workers and exorcists in Palestine at the time. Jesus simply did the work "for free," which is what attracted the huge crowds. Again, Aslan ignores the statements that go along with the miracles-- that peoples' sins were being forgiven. Cue C.S. Lewis.

He glosses over the resurrection, essentially agreeing with other skeptics like John Dominic Crossan that "something happened" to move Jesus' followers from sad and defeated to zealous martyrs for their faith. But, like Jesus' miracles, says it cannot be a "historical event" that we can prove happened.
Aslan believes that the explanations of the resurrection recorded in the Gospels evolved over the years as the authors' grew used to defending the resurrection against claims that Jesus was only resurrected as a spirit, or that his disciples stole his body, etc. 

So, why give this book two stars instead of one? Aslan is correct that most Christians -- of all stripes-- are not taught much about the context of 100 B.C.E. to 100 C.E.The events recorded in 1 & 2 Maccabees were important to the Israel of Jesus' time. Who was Herod? Who was Festus? What was the context of their reigns? What was Nazareth? Aslan does a good job putting much of that history-- as recorded by Josephus and uncovered by modern archaeology-- into an easily-readable narrative.

I suppose I will have to read Aslan's book on Islam to determine if he applied the same type of research techniques in critiquing the religion he claims to adhere to.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Book Review (#45 of 2014) The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely

The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic
Standard economic theory assumes that people are rational, utility-maximizing creatures, and behavioral economics repeatedly disproves this notion through various, often humorous, experiments. Ariely is a behavioral economist who has conducted many such experiments over the years. His thinking about research is greatly influenced by a horrific accident he experienced as a youth that left him badly burned. This book aims to put a positive spin on irrationality, arguing that it's what makes us human and gives us the capacity to love others. Ariely also hopes to point out some practical applications of his experiments' conclusions.

A few points: 
Don't pay your workers bonuses that are too high. This creates too much pressure that distracts; the effect is worse if it's a loss-aversion experiment.

Clutch players don't perform/shoot any better at "crunch time," they just take more shots.

People prefer to work for a reward rather than have it handed to them. Studies show that people do not by-and-large just put in the minimum effort in order to get the maximum reward. I wrote a personal observation of this on an assembly line years ago. They put in effort and desire to achieve goals, they value their work. But people want to know their work serves a higher purpose. If your boss gives you an assignment and you work very hard on it, and even get recognition for it, if the work gets shelved or the project is canceled, it crushes motivation. This isn't rational-- you know you did a good job, you got paid for it, you got praised by your boss. But those rewards aren't enough. The next time you're given such a task, it will affect your motivation and the quality of your work. 

Connecting even the lowliest worker's tasks to the overall goals of the company will increase productivity. I remember this being best exemplified by SRC Holdings in Springfield, MO which includes all its employees in its monthly financial meetings-- all employees (from the janitor to the CEO) see how their work affects the bottom line, the success of the company, and therefore their paychecks. This is considered "best practice" in management and is encouraged by current ISO standards.

Playing "hard to get" in love really does work, when we have to struggle to accomplish or build something we take greater satisfaction than if it was easy. When the task is a big struggle and we fail to complete it, we feel worse than if the task had been easy and we failed.

The IKEA effect. IKEA may sell cheap furniture, but the assembly process it requires causes us to value it more-- we created something. We become attached to and take greater pride in our own creations, which  leads to overvaluation of them. My wife and I recently decided to purchase a used house rather than build a new one, even though the new one would have been nicer and was within our price range and had more positive upside. We made this choice, in part, because I remembered how attached my family was to a house we built in my childhood, where my parents designed it and included input from all of us; it was tailor-made. Among the hardest things we ever did was leave that home, part of me still misses it. We don't intend to live in our current location for very long, so we felt that investing in the creation of a new home would have rooted our hearts more than we wanted. It also would have been harder for us to put our clunky, used furniture into a shiny new house.

People who have experienced a great deal of pain develop higher pain tolerance. Our bodies, minds, and attitudes adjust to our surroundings. Studies have found that people who moved from the cold Midwest to sunny California may have been happier temporarily, but over time reverted to the previous baseline of happiness-- and vice-versa for those who moved to the Midwest from California.

Much of the book deals with Ariely's fascination with assortive mating and the "inefficient market" that is the U.S. dating market. He hypothesizes that those who have obvious shortcomings-- like horrible burns-- may compensate by seeking a less-attractive mate who is, say, funnier or smarter than average. Studies find that men tend to be more "optimistic" and "aim higher" in dating activity than women. They seem to be less aware, or less influenced by, their shortcomings.

Emotions affect our decisions long after the emotions fade. If you decide on a particular course of action because you were influenced by an emotion you felt at the time--positive or negative--you will likely continue on that course of action (even if irrational or inefficient) even though you got over the emotion you were feeling. People have a strong "status quo bias," which makes them loathe to change and we often fall for the "sunk cost fallacy" of becoming attached to things just because they're there.

In the end, Ariely praises the biblical Gideon for testing everything. That is sort of Ariely's motto. 

The book was pretty good. I still would recommend Kahneman's seminal Thinking Fast and Slow (my review here) before reading this book, but I would add Ariely's book to the "behavioral economics" reading list. 3 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Book Review (#44 of 2014) God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I'm reviewing this book as an evangelical Christian. I have long wanted to read a Hitchens book after enjoying many of his witty book reviews in The Atlantic and seeing the respect other evangelicals had for Hitchens after engaging him personally. As he wrote in his book, he spent much of his time among Christian or religious friends. He is a character.

Epistomological humility is the main lesson I gleaned from this book. Most of my Christian friends (myself included) are very confident in their theological positions and all of them, whether they admit it or not, look slightly down their nose at other positions as "errant" and therefore inferior. But this is arrogance. To think that of all the billions of people who have existed on earth, I was not only chosen by God and ended up in the one True religion, but have also ended up in precisely the right branch of Christianity. Not only that, but my specific school of thought within that branch contains the most right interpretation of Scripture written in other languages and cultures that existed thousands of years ago. That my team is the "most right" that ever existed. What are the odds of this? Incalculable. Yet, that's what most of us believe. So, maybe we should all be more humble. I would do better to admit as Baptist theologian/pastor Rodney Reeves does that I'm Baptist just because I was raised Baptist.

I enjoyed Hitchens' critique of the various religions. Very few have the breadth of knowledge and experience of travel, marriage, working, and friendships in so many religions and culture. Hitchens is like the anti-C.S. Lewis, well-steeped in world literature and philosophy but coming down on the opposite side of Lewis' "Lord, liar, or lunatic" proposition-- which Hitchens praises Lewis for.

A couple of weaknesses I found in Hitchens' arguments: 

Hitchens repeatedly lauds the moral position and behavior of himself and other atheists/humanists. He repeatedly criticizes religions for promoting "evil" deeds such as murder, genocide, slavery, etc. This requires that morality exists and can be defined--that all is not relative. But Christianity justifies its moral code on the basic idea that man was created in God's image. This is the reason given in Genesis for murder being criminal. Without God, and an absolute truth, what basis does Hitchens or other atheists give for criticizing the behavior of others? Acknowledging and defining "evil" is a real philosophical problem for atheists, and Hitchens avoids that weakness completely.

Hitchens gives a good summary of arguments against Michael Behe's theory of irreducible complexity. He gives new scientific evidence and theory explaining the evolution of the eye, for example. He points out that we have plenty of useless body parts, and asks why an intelligent designer would design an eye that would require that images taken in be flipped before processed by the brain. That the body is a fairly inefficient system that if we could start from scratch and design ourselves we could make more efficient. My critique: 
 How did the first organism know that there was light to see and "data" to be received from it? Where did the light come from, and the data embedded in it? How did it know that the "data" could be decoded and made useful via something called "nerves"? He does critique the "have you ever seen a car without a maker?" argument and other more simple ones that Christians frequently use. But he does not explain a first cause. Stephen Hawking, in his essays published in Black Holes and Baby Universes, states that the universe's origins are explained by either a Grand Unifying Theory of physics, or a creator God. Hawking is betting on the GUT. Hitchens does not acknowledge that tradeoff, even though he quotes Hawking.

Hitchens does not believe in a literal resurrection because he is uncertain that a Jesus ever existed. He doesn't address the radically changed behavior of Jesus' followers after the resurrection event, or their peculiar martyrdoms. Many biblical critics, including those in the Jesus Seminar, acknowledge that "something happened" around the time of Jesus' supposed resurrection that is hard to explain with any physical or scientific explanations. Hitchens does not address those concerns, seemingly lumping in Christian martyrdom as the same as those seen in Islam, Mormonism, or other religions.

I enjoyed Hitchens' critiques of Mormonism and Islam, showing them as essentially the flip sides of the same coin (which I have often argued). He does a great job showing the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the Catholic Church when it comes to moral posturing.He points out an awful lot in the history of all the religions that adherents would rather forget.

In an interview I saw with Hitchens late in his life (I believe it was on 60 Minutes) he stated that he did not deny the chance that a God may be out there, he was just supremely confident that none of the religions and explanations for him here on earth were correct. It's important to keep that statement in mind while reading this book.

If you want a more complete rebuttal to Hitchens et al, I would recommend William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith, which at one time included a 13-cassette audio series that I listened to in college and gleaned quite a bit from.

I recommend Hitchens book for though-provoking discussion and even entertainment value. I would argue that every Christian should read this book and be ready to give a response to it. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Book Review (#43 of 2014) How Now Shall We Work? by Hugh Whelchel

How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work.
Hugh Whelchel is Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics in Virginia (their blog is here). 

Like Tim Keller's book (my review), Whelchel quotes from a large number of earlier works (including Keller) on fleshing out a consistent doctrine of work and vocation. I found Whelchel's work helpful in a few areas.

First, he does a good job spelling out the problem of the modern church in expressing a full "Four- Chapter Gospel"  that includes God's reason for creation and the "Cultural Mandate" of Genesis-- to subdue the earth and bring things out of it. Whelchel argues that Dispensationalism arising out of the Great Awakening movements of the 1800s created a harmful "Two-Chapter Gospel" that focuses only on personal sin and salvation rather than the role of all creation in God's redemption plan.

"The gospel, when understood in its fullness, is not solely about individual happiness and fulfillment; it is not all about me. 'It is not just a wonderful plan for ‘my life’ but a wonderful plan for the world; it is about the coming of God’s kingdom to renew all things.'"

The Great Commission rolls into the Cultural Mandate: 

"The difference between the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission is that the former precedes the fall and the work of Christ; the latter follows these. Otherwise they are very much the same. Of course, it is not possible for people to subdue the earth for God until their hearts are changed by the Holy Spirit...When you answer God’s call to use your gifts in work, whether by making clothes, practicing law, tilling the field, mending broken bodies, or nurturing children, you are participating in God’s work. God does not only send ministers to give the world sermons; He sends doctors to give medicine, teachers to impart wisdom and so on." 

In this, Whelchel harkens back to Francis Schaeffer's work as well as Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey's How Now Shall We Live? which was a big influence on me in college. I think Whelchel does a better job than Keller in researching Luther and Calvin's attitudes towards work, as well (he at least includes more quotes from them). Towards the end, he also cites H. Richard Niebuhr's models for Christian engagement of culture, arguing that too many churches have taken either a defense and separatist attitude (Anabaptists and Mennonites), or a "Christ against the culture" mentality (liberation theology). Instead of Christians need to engage the culture at all levels and in all areas. This is best done in all aspect of their everyday lives, including their life at work:

"The fifth and final alternative is 'Christ the Transformer of Culture.' Proponents of this view include the “conversionists” who attempt “to convert the values and goals of secular culture into the service of the kingdom of God.”194 Augustine, Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer are the chief proponents of this last view."

"Until Christians embrace the Biblical doctrine of work, they will remain ineffective, because they will continue to practice a separation of faith and work which leaves them helpless to impact the culture around them for the glory of God and the furtherance of His Kingdom...most evangelical Christians today have no idea that their daily work has anything to do with the Kingdom of God. Paul Marshall in his book Heaven Is Not My Home argues that the escapist attitude of many American Christians has been shaped by a false eschatology which teaches that our eternal destiny is in heaven."
Whelchel and Keller have just about sold me on covenant theology at this point, and I am pondering whether I should become a Presbyterian along their lines.

Another contribution of Whelchel is to explain primary calling versus secondary callings. Our primary calling is to follow Christ, period. No other Gods before Him. All Christians have that calling, but we all have separate but equal secondary callings-- to our vocations, our local church, and to civic society. His treatment of the term "vocation" was helpful to me.

"Our vocational calling from God to the workplace is something above a job or even a career. Out of the primary calling of God flow secondary calls to action in certain areas of our lives.
Vocational calling stays the same as we move in and out of different jobs and careers. Our vocational calling is directly related to the discovery of our God-given talents."

We all may have many different jobs in our lives along a particular career path, but it should fulfill the vocation in which we feel called. For some, this may mean entrepreneurship, for others foreign service, for others building and designing things, or working with children, etc. We are to use our God-given talents to reflect the glory of God and spread the Kingdom wherever we're at. Yet, far too often the Church (particularly the Southern Baptist kinds with which I am most familiar) say things like: 

“'Did you hear Joe Smith has left his job at the bank to go into fulltime Christian service as a pastor?'” That would be an example of the Catholic Distortion, which devalues vocational work in the eyes of God."

Calvin wrote, “We know that people were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when every person applies diligently to his or her own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.”
Whelchel, like Keller, concludes:

 There is no distinction between spiritual and temporal, sacred and secular. All human work, however lowly, is capable of glorifying God...God intends your work to contribute to the restoration of the creation, and the people in it, to raising life on this blue planet to higher states of beauty, goodness, and truth, reflecting the glory of God in our midst...Our Christian calling finds no separation between the secular and the sacred. To God, what we do on Sunday is no more important or spiritual than what we do on Monday. Everything we do should be unified in obedience to God and for His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The thoughts on this book are mostly clear, though some points could have included a bit more clarity. There were some typos toward the end, the conclusion had a hasty feel to it. But I highly recommend it, 4 stars out of 5.